No rest for the Eagles' defense
Defensive linemen are not worried about going through a period of adjustment with the team's new scheme.
ON MONDAY, when reporters first watched the Eagles practice under Chip Kelly, among the stranger sights was a rep that featured Trent Cole crouching, his hands held at hip level, as he lined up across from slot receiver Jason Avant.
So far, much of what has been written and said about the Eagles under Kelly concerns the offense. That's understandable, given that Kelly's offensive theories are why he got the job. The offense is why practice is run at such a hectic pace.
But new defensive coordinator Billy Davis' unit is making an equally huge adjustment; maybe a bigger one, given that there figure to be more new defensive starters in 2013 than new offensive starters. Though players caution the Eagles will be a 4-3 team in certain situations, Monday they pretty much showed a three-man front, the "4-3 under" scheme Davis employed in Arizona a few years back. (Basically, what would be the weakside defensive end in a 4-3 stands up, and the strongside linebacker stands over the tight end, with three linemen down in stances. It's really kind of a 5-2, if you go by proximity to the line of scrimmage, rather than who's in what type of stance.)
Among the more prominent players, the change has been biggest for Cole, whose play at defensive end in the 4-3 ranks him third in franchise history with 71 sacks, and for Brandon Graham, the 2010 first-round defensive end who seemed finally ready to blossom down the stretch last season when Jason Babin was released and Graham started to play regularly. Cole, Graham and former Houston Texan Connor Barwin figure to be the top three outside linebackers in the new setup; Cole and Barwin generally worked with the first team Monday.
"It doesn't feel strange anymore," Cole said this week. "I'm going to be [lined up opposite a receiver] more than I have been in the past, but I'm taking to it well. You've gotta pay attention to detail and you've gotta watch more [than you do as a 4-3 end]."
Is this a good fit for Cole, 30, who so obviously enjoyed exploding wild-eyed out of a three-point stance and hurling himself at offensive tackles?
"I'm not going to say if it's good or bad; I can't really tell you that," Cole said. "I just know that whatever position they put me in, I'm going to do what I have to do, do what they tell me to do. I'm up for anything."
Kelly likes to point out that Cole dropped into coverage quite a bit in 2010. What Kelly might not know, because he wasn't here, is that dropping Cole into coverage so much helped get then-defensive coordinator Sean McDermott fired. Why take a guided missile and point him away from the prime target, to wander around the landscape? Cole made no secret of his frustration then.
Asked about that this week, Cole said there's a difference - that it's frustrating to be lined up in a 4-3 against a tackle you know you can beat "four out of five times" and be told to drop back instead. A 3-4 linebacker isn't lined up on the tackle to start with.
Cole also said not to infer too much from OTAs, that the Eagles will play a hybrid scheme, and the coaches haven't really had a lot of time to figure out how to best employ each player.
Barwin echoed that.
"I don't think they're ever going to have Trent trying to cover a guy like Jason Avant. A lot of that's disguise," Barwin said yesterday. "A lot of that's just installing in the summer. The coaches are just evaluating what the players are capable of doing. You're not going to put Trent Cole on Dez Bryant. It's just not going to happen . . . Trent's just there to reroute him, hit him and go."
Graham said he isn't frustrated over switching schemes just when he finally started to gain some traction.
"It's not bad. It's football. At Michigan, I had three different coordinators; they asked me to do different things," said Graham, who recalled that he came to the Wolverines as a linebacker but got too big to play there in college. "As long as I keep repping at it, I believe I can get it done . . . I don't know exactly how they'll use me yet, but we'll see."
Graham said coaches are making allowances for the transition.
"They're patient with us," he said. "It's not like they're trying to get rid of us right away if we can't do it right away."
Graham said he has talked about the move with his offseason workout partner and fellow Michigan alum, LaMarr Woodley, of the Steelers. He said Woodley assured him that if he studies and makes the most of his OTA reps, he'll be able to play instinctively again by training camp.
Graham said Woodley's other advice was to "come in light." Graham said he weighs 270 now, wants to get under 260 by camp. Cole said he is at 264 now, might lose a few more pounds, but not much.
Barwin said the adjustment for 4-3 veterans Cole, Graham and reserve Phillip Hunt really shouldn't be all that huge. The biggest difference, other than that you might want to lose a few pounds, is that you have to think, he said.
"As a 4-3 end . . . you have a run away from you, a run at you, or a pass. You read [the tackle] all game. As an outside linebacker, you have to read the tackle's block, the tight end's, the running back's. You have to drop into coverage and understand the concepts. You have to understand what your inside linebacker's doing, your safety, your corner. So mentally, there's more, but once you can grasp it, the game slows down. It seems hard at first, but after a couple weeks or a couple months, it's not as hard as it may seem right now," Barwin said.
Barwin played in a 4-3 his first 2 years in Houston, in a 3-4 his last 2 years. Which is tougher? Barwin said it's hard to compare.
"At outside linebacker, you're asked to do more, in a sense, but as a 4-3 defensive end, you're asked to physically grind a little bit more every single play," hitting an offensive tackle every snap, he said.
Barwin said he tells the former DEs that he has come to like the fact that an OLB is "more creative," and harder for the offense to account for, since he isn't rushing every down.
"There's more open space. You don't get double-teamed all the time," he said.
Today on PhillyDailyNews.com: Check out the photo gallery from Monday's open practice.